Haitian Diaspora in ‘Stones in the Sun’

By STEPHEN HOLDEN
NOV. 20, 2014                      
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James Noel and Patricia Rhinvil as a married couple in Patricia Benoit’s “Stones in the Sun,” a film about the Haitian diaspora.Credit William Serber
 
“Stones in the Sun” is a wrenching portrait of Haitian exiles struggling to build new lives in New York City after fleeing their country in the late 1980s. Jean-Claude Duvalier had departed, but his generals remained in power and continued his reign of terror. The film, written and directed by Patricia Benoit, is a powerfully acted exploration of the different ways that people deal with the traumatic wounds of the past.
 
Deep, unanswerable questions are raised. Having relocated, do you deny your heritage and reinvent yourself, like Micheline (Michele Marcelin), a real estate broker living in an upscale suburban neighborhood? Or do you stay in touch with your homeland, like Yannick (the novelist Edwidge Danticat), the oldest of Micheline’s two daughters; she’s a teacher and political activist who remained in Haiti after Micheline left. Yannick not only risked her life to stay but also sacrificed opportunities for a higher education in the United States. She does not regret her choice.
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Carlo Mitton plays a bigwig connected to Haitian death squads who unexpectedly shows up at his son’s house in New York.Credit Will Serber
Their clash drives one of several interlocking stories in this profound meditation on how exiles cope with strong mixed emotions about their shared history. Micheline, whose husband was a casualty of the regime in Haiti, camouflages her heritage by posing as French, all but erasing her former identity and keeping her younger daughter in the dark about her background.
 
From the moment Yannick arrives on her doorstep, she is a walking rebuke to her mother’s self-transformation. Micheline goes ballistic when Yannick hangs the laundry out to dry, because the neighbors will see. When Yannick takes a walk, Micheline tells her that here, people go to a gym to exercise.
 
The conflict between past and present is even more agonizing for Gerald (Thierry Saintine), a left-wing news commentator and political firebrand whose broadsides on a Haitian radio station in New York keep those who left apprised of atrocities still taking place back home. The son of Max (Carlo Mitton), a right-wing bigwig connected to death squads, Gerald has changed his last name and married an American woman. The past catches up with him with the news that his father left the country after losing a power struggle.
 
When the proud, dapper Max knocks on Gerald’s his door, Gerald reluctantly takes him in for the night but announces he cannot stay. Angry demonstrations break out when Max is spotted by Haitians in Gerald’s Brooklyn neighborhood. A pathetic soul, Max raises a ruckus at a bank where he goes to take out money and discovers his account has been emptied. Rarely have the words “Do you know who I am?,” accompanied by threats, fallen on deafer ears. The unspoken question that hovers in the air is whether forgiveness of a parent is possible when that parent, no matter how fragile (Max coughs up blood), is a monster.
 
A third arrival, Vita (Patricia Rhinvil), is the wife of Ronald (James Noel), a cabdriver who demonstrated for free elections in Haiti and was forced to flee, leaving Vita at the mercy of officers who raped her. Although they love each other, Vita is still so traumatized that she shrinks from Ronald’s touch.
 
Ms. Benoit’s screenplay is unapologetically schematic in its depiction of a cross-section of Haitian exiles, but each story forcefully registers. The movie regularly flashes back to the turning points in the characters’ lives when they decided to leave Haiti. All of them — even Micheline — still have a deep love for their native country. The movie’s perspective is probably closer to that of Yannick, who is openly scornful of her mother’s upward mobility and snobbery.
 
There is no sugar coating in these fraught relationships. What’s done is done, the consequences must be faced, and the choices are painful. The past can’t be shrugged off lightly. Like it or not, you have to live with it.
 
Stones in the Sun
 
Opens on Friday
 
Written and directed by Patricia Benoit; director of photography, Eric Lin; edited by Dominique Petrot and Jeremy Troy; music by Enis Rotthoff; production design by Nadya Gurevich; costumes by Naomi Wolff; produced by Karin Chien, Ben Howe and Mynette Louie; released by Lotbo Films. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Michele Marcelin (Micheline), Thierry Saintine (Gerald), Edwidge Danticat (Yannick), Carlo Mitton (Max), Patricia Rhinvil (Vita) and James Noel (Ronald).